Country music is apparently having a moment. I don’t know how else to explain the fact that I’ve been DVRing Nashville every week and was recently possessed to download an album of Diamond Rio’s greatest hits. Add to that list Jennifer Echols’ newest book, Dirty Little Secret, which takes place in Nashville and features a gifted teenage fiddle player relegated to secretively performing at the mall while her younger sister (and former performance partner) is groomed to become a huge country star.
Bailey is bitter for a number of reasons. Short story: a record company offered her sister Julie a contract, but not her. Her parents, wanting Julie to be successful, bowed to the demands of the record company and forbid Bailey from playing music or doing anything to draw attention to herself. It wouldn’t look good if people started realizing the record company had knowingly excluded half of a teenage duo from a deal. With the threat of her parents refusing to pay her college tuition if she screws up, Bailey tries to stick to the rules.
But Bailey’s love of music and playing her fiddle makes it hard. Through her gig at the mall, Bailey meets Sam, an ambitious singer and guitar player who tries to recruit Bailey to join his band. Bailey can’t commit, but she’s intrigued by Sam and finds that she loves playing with the rest of the band. She’s torn between doing what she loves and holding on to her family (and possibly her future). Things are further complicated by Sam’s tendency to put success before everything – even personal relationships.
Basically everybody in this book is messed up on some level. Bailey and Sam both have things in their past they’re struggling with, and their personal issues cause them to have a tumultuous relationship throughout the book. It’s messy, and sometimes you wonder if they’ll ever figure out how to clean it up. One thing I always appreciate about a Jennifer Echols book is the way the main character is obviously flawed and often makes poor decisions, but you never really hate her for it. You understand where she’s coming from and what’s causing her to behave that way, and even if what she’s doing is a bit irrational you find yourself sympathizing.
The same was true of Sam, except it was a little harder to get on board with him because, like Bailey, I never really understood where his behavior was coming from since I didn’t have access to his thoughts. While some readers might find it hard to stomach Sam’s behavior, I liked the idea that I was right there with Bailey, not totally understanding where he was coming from until the end. That’s probably part of why I was able to sympathize with her as much as I did.
I understand why it wasn’t the case, but I did feel like Bailey’s parents were these sort of evil specters in the distance – you hear about the things they did, but you don’t really see them until the end of the book, and you never totally understand them. And maybe you’re not meant to. But after finally meeting Julie at the end of the book, I did wish that there had been a bit more context for Bailey and Julie’s relationship prior to the start of the book. They seemed to have a really nice bond, and it caught me a little off guard how quickly they fell into that despite all the conflict discussed in the rest of the book.
What I loved about this book was that despite all the messiness in the characters’ relationships, one thing Bailey never questioned was her love and talent for playing the fiddle. She was confident and secure when it came to her fiddle playing, and I’d like to think that’s part of the reason she was able to put some of her dubious past behavior into perspective and avoid falling apart completely when she felt shunned by her family.
Another thing I enjoyed about Dirty Little Secret was that it took place over a pretty short period of time; maybe a couple of weeks. I liked it because I felt like I was with Bailey through every little twist and turn that challenged her or excited her or changed her perspective. It was a great way to show character growth and again, helped me empathize with Bailey.
I’ve never been to Nashville but it’s clear that Echols knows the city and really tried to nail down the vibe of the city and its music scene in this book. She also captured the sense of camaraderie between musicians and the real sense of respect for talent in Nashville. There was a real ambiance about this book, especially in the scenes where Bailey and the band played their gigs. There’s a running theme throughout the book where Bailey sees pieces of her life as country songs, which struck me as so appropriate – many country songs have mass appeal because so many people can relate to them. While Bailey’s specific struggles in Dirty Little Secret may not be universal, the coming-of-age story is, and tying that in with country music just felt right. Whether you’re a country music fan or not, I think you’ll find something to connect with in Dirty Little Secret.